The Pursuit of Happiness

The Schools of PHSS

In the tiny kingdom of Bhutan which lies between Tibet to the north and India to the south the King plays football with his mates and any others who care to join in on a public park each Friday afternoon.  He is monarch of the only country in the world which measures Gross National Happiness. You see its tenets posted in the schools.  His majesty has a unique leadership style. He travels the country speaking to people asking them what their problems are and inviting them to contribute to the solutions. The success is measured not in how much money a solution generates but in how much happier the people are as a consequence. His belief is that true development occurs when material and spiritual growth occur side by side.  

I like this! In fact I liked it so much I went there to see it for myself. It struck me that the King was very popular largely because of his humility, his visibility and his consistency in pursuing the principles upon which his nation was based. Undoubtedly the population were cheery. From the monks, farmers and stall holders met in the river valleys to the family of Yak herders met in snow at 13,000 ft everyone had a smile.


So I got to thinking about the relationship between leadership and happiness. Shortly after my return from Bhutan I had to speak to a Head Teacher conference where the biggest issue was staff recruitment and retention. Nationally teachers are leaving the profession at 10.4% per annum for three main reasons


  • 44% workload
  • 36% stress
  • 29% retirement


In addition there is a bulge coming through of 86,00 additional pupils a year for the next 14 years. For staffing we will need 55,000 teachers just to maintain what we have. * If more leave because their work is seen to be excessive and a cause of stress then we have a problem. Leaders need to understand what shapes the well-being and happiness of their staff. Only then can we begin to do something about addressing it.


There is a well-established research field of positive psychology. I co-authored a book on this very topic in 2009.  The research attempts to measure what is called subjective well-being (SWB) chiefly by doing what the King of Bhutan does and ask ‘at this point in time how happy are you?’  SWB is determined by a number of factors each of which school leaders can bolster.


From the academics who study Positive Psychology we know some circumstances improve subjective well-being. The most cited are outlined below. Each in their own way improve well-being and happiness, in combination even more so.   I’ve also listed some thoughts on strategies for you as a school leader to increase their likelihood.

Social capital through shared activity and friendship networks.The American economist Robert Putnam wrote a wonderful book on the decline of social capital in U.S. Society. He talked about the historic power of communities coming together to share experiences such as little league softball and how its demise was indicative of an atomised society. He cited evidence that shared social activity lengthened life expectancy. In one of the best leadership books for schools Hargreaves and Fullan wrote convincingly of the power of harnessing professional capital. But for me the most compelling case for school leaders to construct meaningful opportunities for staff and others to interact socially comes with the work of Christakis and Fowler, who looked at a large cohort over time and found that friendship groups added considerably to an individuals’ SWB when they were positive, non-judgmental and easily accessed. It helps to be able to chat to a mate! The lift which followed opportunities to share and disclose in a discrete fashion was considerable. Higher SWB is inked to improved productivity, creativity and attendance. Friendship networks are powerful influencers of mood.

Reframing and the ability to place distance between an experience and its emotional response.Teaching is stressful for many staff. Some find it difficult to detach themselves emotionally. An inability to ‘park’ adverse classroom experiences, instead revisiting and churning them is seriously damaging to health in the long term. Interventions such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy teach us to act like scientists of our own behaviours and question the worth of the negative emotions we assign to experiences. Leaders in schools can model this step towards objectivity. For example, separate the professional from the personal. Don’t place policies before people. Don’t assign value to a staff contribution based exclusively on numbers or grades alone. Banish the everyday phrases and words which kill aspiration. Encourage others to do the same. There’s no place for ‘it’s impossible.’ ‘it will never work’ or ‘it’s not for us.’

Strong locus of control.High SWB is related to the belief you retain choice in your life and that the decisions you make are yours and yours alone. A strong conviction that you can shape your own destiny impacts strongly on how you choose to behave on a daily basis. In a school coercion is never as powerful a motivator as conviction. People give discretionary effort when they are convinced to do so is of their own choosing. Overwork or what are perceived to be unreasonable demands related to work threaten this locus of control. A poor locus of control is institutionally evident in schools preoccupied by Ofsted. If the constant mantra is ‘what does Ofsted want?’ Then the school has forfeited control of its own destiny.

Higher purpose.People of faith are. It seems, happier than the rest of us. That’s most likely, but not exclusively, to occur through formalised religion. What’s interesting for school leaders is the readiness of humans to serve a purpose which is beyond the immediate and oneself. Staff will buy in to such a purpose. Schools who ask staff to serve the needs of students tap into a more compelling cause than following the latest Ofsted requirements. The best schools rarely lose sight of their higher purpose.

Interests which are sustained beyond the workplace.A hobby or interest which has got nothing to do with work is an important release. The concept of ‘flow’ where capability and challenge are so closely matched that the experience becomes highly enjoyable and time seems to fly by is one which is rare in life. Those who do experience such moments often do so in activities away from school. It’s worth encouraging outside interests, and as a leader if you do not have your own release you’ll pay a heavy price for not being able to switch off.

Experience of success with recognition or appreciation.Oscar winners outlive Oscar nominees by on average, four years. What’s this about? It’s about how we frame success and how we gauge ourselves based on that interpretation of success. In this case like many others, comparisons are invidious. Competition can be productive in a school but be careful on how success is recognised and contributions are appreciated.  A strong success culture in a school is driven by meaningful recognition of the contribution of individuals.

Physical activity.People who exercise regularly are less susceptible to illness and tend to live longer lives. Exercise releases endorphins and so elevates mood.  People are often more creative when they feel positively about themselves.

Rest and recovery.Sleep deprivation is the cheapest form of torture. Switching off can be difficult especially if you don’t have a physical or emotional outlet as described above.  School leaders may have to intervene to ensure that less experienced teachers are not spending too much of their free time on school work.  Weekends are important for recovery.

Spontaneous acts of kindness.One of the schools I visited had a strategy called Mystery Mentor in which all the individuals in the school staff community had their names put into a hat each half term. A draw was made and each person had to do something specific – cover a lesson, placate a student, volunteer for a task – on behalf of their nominee to make their professional life easier. It was anonymous. The net effect was to raise the morale in the school. Researchers report a surge in SWB following charitable giving and spontaneous acts of kindness.

Reflection. The most famous experiment conducted around reflection was the Milwaukee Nuns experiment. It covered a period of over 70 years and had a tightly defined control group.  where in an enclosed community those Nuns who through keeping diaries were able to reflect on their everyday experiences lived into their nineties, noticeably longer than the others. Perhaps it formed a means of unburdening worries and an opportunity to make sense of events. A school leader can invite and model professional reflection though such things as 360degree appraisals, inviting individuals and teams to share their written thoughts on the school year and how it could be improved next time round, review the week through a shared bulletin each Friday and use a systematic student review tool as part of work with students.


The King of Bhutan plays football with his mates. His country is tiny, isolated yet, for the moment at least, cohesive and happy. He has high visibility and is responsive to the everyday human needs of his population. I’m not asking you to get your boots on but I would suggest that high visibility alongside a considered approach to well-being and happiness will work for you.



*Statistics quoted by The Leadership organisation The Key at Inspiring Leadership Conference presentation, Birmingham June 2016

Winning The H Factor: The Secrets of Happy Schools, Alistair Smith with Sir John Jones and Joanna Reid, Continuum, London 2009

Connected The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives Nicholas A. Christakis, James H. Fowler, Little Brown, New York, 2009

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert D Putnam, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000,

Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School, Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullan, teachers College Press, Ontario, 2012


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